29 Dec 2023

'Terrifyingly perfect magic' - Authors and book lovers share their favourite NZ reads

5:28 pm on 29 December 2023
Best NZ books read feature

RNZ asked authors and book lovers to tell us their favourite New Zealand book they read this year. Photo: RNZ / Nik Dirga

They say you can never judge a book by its cover, but can you judge a New Zealand book by its lover?

RNZ asked several of Aotearoa's most noteworthy authors and book lovers to pick their favourite New Zealand-authored book they read in 2023 - whether a bold new work or a timeless classic they just discovered for the first time.

It's been a banner year for literature and nonfiction in New Zealand, with Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton's Birnam Wood winning international attention and authors like Catherine Chidgey, Pip Adam, Tusiata Avia, Dame Anne Salmond and many more gathering high praise for their latest works.

Here is just a sampling of the rich bounty of words old and new that our panel of bibliophiles couldn't put down this year:

Author Catherine Chidgey

Ockham award winner Catherine Chidgey. Photo: Ebony Lamb Photography

Catherine Chidgey, winner of the 2023 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for fiction for The Axeman's Carnival

I couldn't choose just one title from this year's remarkable crop, so I'm going with Maurice Gee's 1979 novel Under the Mountain. As a child I was gripped by the story of the evil slug creatures hell-bent on turning Earth to mud. I tried to master telepathy by making my mind into a still pool - but since I had no red-haired twin to practise with, I ended up exchanging silent messages with myself, which rather missed the point. It's been a treat to revisit the novel as an adult - I've read it to my 8-year-old, who says it made her nervous but also excited. The perfect spell to cast on a whole new generation! As a writer, I've loved decoding how Gee grabs the reader by the throat and doesn't let go. Sensational.

Chris Tse

NZ Poet Laureate Chris Tse. Photo: Chris Tse

Chris Tse, New Zealand's Poet Laureate for 2022-2024

Anyone who's ever written, or helped to publish, a book knows how many sleepless nights can go into the process. Released to coincide with the 30th anniversary of Whitireia's popular graduate diploma course in publishing, Everything I Know About Books edited by Odessa Owens and Theresa Crewdson is an eclectic collection that gives readers a behind-the-scenes glimpse into how our books are made and marketed with a uniquely Aotearoa perspective, telling the story of publishing in essays, comics and poetry. Everything is covered, from editing and fonts to publicity and copyright. Industry stalwarts give us their horror stories and well-earned advice, while relative newcomers share their experiences of establishing their own journals and presses. An entertaining book you can dip into and learn something new or outrageous no matter where you land.

Giselle Clarkson is a freelance illustrator in New Zealand

Giselle Clarkson is a freelance illustrator in New Zealand Photo: Supplied

Giselle Clarkson, illustrator and cartoonist, author of The Observologist: A Handbook for Mounting Very Small Scientific Expeditions

I know I won't be the only person to choose this book as a favourite this year, but Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. The characters are so incredibly well-observed and they feel so absolutely real I kept having the instinct to Google them and snoop their LinkedIn profiles. The places too - although Thorndike is fictional I am certain I've been there. The rest of the plot is perfectly balanced between believable - to keep you grounded in the story, and outrageous - to keep the pages turning. I thought I knew approximately how it would end, but the last few pages had my mouth agape as I read them several times over. It's got a cool cover too.

Motueka writer Mat Tait with his book Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku.

Motueka writer Mat Tait with his book Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku. Photo: Vijay Paul/The NZ Book Awards Trust

Mat Tait, Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award winner at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for Te Wehenga: The Separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku

Post-apocalyptic fiction in whatever medium is a perennial and popular genre, and Wellington resident Claire Moleta's 2021 novel Unsheltered, set in a near future Australia-alike, is an unusually pointed and intimate addition which has had me thinking about it often since reading it. The quest at its heart isn't grand, its viewpoint is firmly from ground level; the mundane details of daily survival as the old world gives way to a harsh and desperate new one. But the book's real power lies in critique: its intimacy provides no comforting distance and we are forced to remember that the hypothetical apocalypse it shows us is in fact not so hypothetical, is happening right now, somewhere, to someone, and that the act of reading this book, and the notion of the genre itself as entertainment, is a monstrous privilege, though perhaps a short-lived one.

Mary Fawcett, owner/manager, Schrödinger's Books, Lower Hutt

Mary Fawcett, owner/manager, Schrödinger's Books, Lower Hutt Photo: Supplied

Mary Fawcett, owner/manager, Schrödinger's Books, Lower Hutt

I had finished The Axeman's Carnival and was looking for something that would fill the magpie-shaped hole in my life, when I was drawn to the striking jacket on Catherine Chidgey's newest novel Pet; a bit like a box of washing powder from the '80s and that in itself made me jump straight in. We meet Justine first in 2014, dealing with her father's dementia, and unable to forget the events of 1984 when, aged 12, she was trying to fit in at a Catholic girls' school and somewhat infatuated with a new teacher. The theme of the mutability of memory is as important as the tale that unfolds back then. Compelling, remarkable and beautifully written, it had me wondering about my own recollections from my '80s schooldays.

Shelley Burne-Field, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington International Institute of Modern Letters and Creative New Zealand Emerging Māori Writer in Residence for 2024

Shelley Burne-Field Photo: Supplied

Shelley Burne-Field, Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington International Institute of Modern Letters and Creative New Zealand Emerging Māori Writer in Residence for 2024

In 1981, all year dad came home from the pub and talked about bad South African rugby players who were, apparently, captained by a drunk piggy pontoon in a beehive. I was ten years old and didn't know apartheid. All I knew was that soon Under the Mountain was gonna be on TV on Sundays. I peeked through my fingers to watch the gloopy alien Wilberforces. When Theo dropped the stone in the back of the car, I cried. I felt his secret eat away at him until the end. It is a delicious and foundational memory. This year, I bought the 1982 Puffin paperback version and read Maurice Gee for the first time in my life. Terrifying perfect magic.

Kirsteen Ure, manager, Coalition for Books NZ

Kirsteen Ure, manager, Coalition for Books NZ Photo: Supplied

Kirsteen Ure, manager, Coalition for Books NZ

Sometimes it's the book you're immersed in that seems closest and therefore best. I'm currently reading Anna Smaill's intriguing, shimmering 2023 novel Bird Life. It's a captivating story set in Tokyo with two protagonists: Dinah, a New Zealander grieving the death of her twin brother; and Yasuko, a solo mother whose son has recently left her without explanation. The two women are drawn together by loss and the novel crackles with the strange powers that exist below Yasuko's immaculate clothes and external poise. Beautifully written, Bird Life exists on the boundaries of the real and the imagined - animals talk to Yasuko; Dinah's dead brother reappears. And it's left to the reader to decide whether these things are to be explained by madness or grief, or something else entirely.

Dunedin author Tony Eyre.

Dunedin author Tony Eyre. Photo: Supplied

Tony Eyre, author of The Book Collector: Reading and Living With Literature

My choice is Naked Under Capricorn by New Zealander Olaf Ruhen, published in 1958. It's the story of the great Australian outback and the relationship between white man, Davis Marriner, left for dead, naked, robbed and abandoned, and the aborigines who come to his aid. Set in the Northern Territory around 1900, it's an account of the establishment of a cattle station by Marriner, his dependence on the Aborigines' knowledge of the country, and how their ancient way of life is gradually destroyed through their contact and dependence on the white man. The book is a favourite because it is a vivid and moving account of Aboriginal life and the issues it raised, which are just as relevant in Australia today.

Jenna Todd, manager, Time Out Bookstore, Auckland

Jenna Todd is the manager of Time Out Bookstore, Auckland. Photo: Supplied / Instagram / Time Out Bookstore

Jenna Todd, manager, Time Out Bookstore, Mt Eden Auckland

Witi Ihimaera describes the indescribable in the 50-year anniversary edition of Tangi. Tama, who works and moves in the Pāheka world in Wellington, receives the call from Waituhi that his father has died. He must return home for the tangihanga. Perhaps he will need to stay home for good. Moving gently between the spaces of finding out about his father's death, traveling home and preparing for the tangi, we observe the process and roles of whānau and hapu. Ihimaera uses pūrākau (Te wehenga of Rangi and Papa, the realms of Te Kore to Te Ao Marama) and kupu whakarite of the natural world to integrate the devastating stages of processing the death of a loved one to the cyclical world of Te Ao Māori. This was the winner of the 1973 James Wattie Book of the Year. Fifty years later, with some new edits that enriches Tangi's context, this was such a memorable read for me in 2023.

Sarah Daniell, former editor, Weekend Herald Canvas magazine

Sarah Daniell Photo: Supplied

Sarah Daniell, former editor, Weekend Herald Canvas magazine

It's not an easy read, but The Bone Tree by Airana Ngarewa, utterly floored me with its spare, evocative writing and sense of place. Kauri and his little brother Black are abandoned. No rudder. No language. No love. Dad's mean and mum's dead. A fallen-down house with empty cupboards but plenty of demons. It's a brutal coming-of-age story set loosely in the '90s against a backdrop of intergenerational trauma, state care, the loss of te reo and tikanga, urbanisation and neglect of the most vulnerable. But given the state of things politically right now, Kauri walking alone along that harsh road, one step forward, ten back, is, sadly, a striking metaphor for our times.

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